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Beating Burnout in the Legal Profession

Pointing out that law students are vulnerable and at risk of experiencing burnout would be almost as futile and obvious as suggesting that it only takes one match to start a fire. However, the feeling that we can't collectively shut off has become quite prominent with more students and remote staff working from home. But what is burnout, and how many Australians are feeling the effects of burnout?

What is burnout?

Reach out Australia identifies burnout as the outcome of enduring and persistent stress over time, emphasising that 'burnout is a state of complete mental, physical and emotional exhaustion.'

The symptoms of burnout are

  • feeling exhausted and unable to perform basic tasks

  • losing motivation in many aspects of your life, including your work, hobbies or relationships

  • feeling unable to focus or concentrate on tasks

  • feeling empty or lacking in emotion

  • losing your passion and drive

  • being easily irritated by minor problems

  • experiencing conflict in your relationships with co-workers, friends and family

  • emotionally withdrawing from friends and family.

In determining whether burnout is simply exhaustion, the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) emphasises three critical components of burnout. The main precursors to burnout include; energy depletion and exhaustion, prominent cynicism towards your work and the reduced capacity to successfully engage with and finish your tasks. Measures of Burnout such as the Sydney Burnout Measure (SBM) extrapolate that although exhaustion is a core feature of burnout, a loss of empathy and anhedonia also indicate burnout.

Is burnout synonymous with depression?

In asking whether burnout is the same as depression, it's essential to understand the clinical definition of depression. A marked symptom of depression is the loss of self-worth and increased self-criticism. Furthermore, depression includes other physiological symptoms such as appetite and sleep changes, and depression is often more acute, enduring for at least two weeks.

The main differences between burnout and depression are subtle but worth mentioning. Burnout has a specific work-related response dynamic where taking a step back from work can remedy the exhaustion that accompanies burnout. Additionally, burnout and depression attract different mood states. The apathetic emotions that go hand in hand with burnout contrast the enduring heaviness of depression.

"I'm not sad. As such, I feel exhausted and can't care about things such as work, which I don't see as important anymore. My cup is empty." Depression- however, is a black pit of desperation. It's the feeling that nothing I do matters or will ever matter. [The thoughts] concluding that I am an abject failure, and every minor mistake confirms that.

There's something incredibly personal about the abovementioned quote. It takes me back to the first year of law. I was so excited but equally abhorred by the idea of making a mistake. I had followed Justice Kirby's legal career a bit too closely. But ironically, closely following his career brought me a lot of comfort and unintentionally challenged the adage of "too close for comfort." There's nothing wrong with being inspired by such an incredible man and former High Court Justice. Even if my career trajectory lacked imagination, I still couldn't fathom that making mistakes would become essential to becoming a better law student.

However, I'm not alone in wanting to do exceedingly well in law school. We all do. But I couldn't help but wonder if some of the personality traits or lack of skills I brought left me vulnerable to working too much, too hard and too often. Although my ambition was and remains high, I've learned to let go of the need to do everything perfectly over the years, especially since perfectionistic tendencies lead to an increased likelihood of experiencing burnout. Furthermore, studying full-time at University doesn't precisely prime you with all of the time in the world to have perfect notes and understand the material. If you have to have boring study notes over understanding the ratio decidendi, then I hope you know that the depth of your understanding is more important than the "perfect" notes.

Identifying burnout in the legal profession

Part of identifying the risk factors of burnout in the legal profession includes acknowledging that, as individuals, there are some factors we can control to minimise or prevent burnout. However, some components of burnout are systemic. Below is an excerpt from Anne Marie Rice, an award-winning conflict resolution expert, mother and legal superstar in Brisbane, Australia.

"It has been said that being a lawyer is easy. It's like riding a bike. Except that bike is on fire. You are on fire. Everything is on fire. And you are in Hell. I have been working in the law for over twenty years, and for the second half of my career, I have spent a lot of time wondering why I have so often felt like I was on fire. And what I could do to put my fire out."

A recent report on lawyer well-being by the Victorian Legal Services Board indicated that poor well-being contributed to burnout. Markers of poor well-being that occur at a cultural level in the organisation further perpetuate the risk of burnout. Those markers involve a large quantity of work, an inability to obtain a work-life balance and a low level of personal autonomy concerning workload capacity and environment.

Workplace culture may also contribute negatively to well-being. For example, lawyers we have spoken to have expressed concern about the hypercritical, highly competitive and ‘up or out’ promotion cultures they have experienced.

How can my workplace beat burnout?

A worthwhile question is how to recover from burnout, considering that the triggers for burnout in the legal profession have been more enduring in a post-pandemic era. The following adjustments and or practices were identified as catalysts for change in the legal profession for prioritising lawyer wellbeing.

  • Discuss well-being; The Lawyer Well-being report identified that discussions of well-being are commonplace in the community legal centre.

  • Improving managerial practices; Understandably, workers are looking for supportive and understanding managers.

  • Explore organisational level changes; Flexible work arrangements, training for staff in how to better interact with clients, providing programs that offer support for lawyers' workplace relationships and protection against vicarious trauma. Additionally, systems that enable managers to assess the current workload better are listed as the most desirable organisational changes.

Please note that not getting paid $200,000 per annum- unfortunately, does not count as vicarious trauma. But you can speak to your lawyer about that.

How can I beat burnout?

  • Take a look at what needs to change in your life to reduce burnout; do you really need to take on more responsibility at home or in other areas of your life? What can you move around or change to prioritise your rest?

  • Ask for the work adjustments you need to perform effectively; does your workplace offer inflexible hours that collide with other areas of your life or make your daily obligations more difficult?

  • Know that there's no value in suffering in silence; the Lawyer Well-being report identified that the legal profession historically valued the suppression of emotions over 'personal vulnerability' and 'emotional intelligence.'

  • Explore the mental health resources available to you; you never have to deal with your problems all by yourself. You deserve support, help, and to minimise an unhealthy amount of stress and exhaustion in your life.

Please note that if you are struggling with burnout and or your mental health, there are resources that are available. For further assistance, please consider whether your workplace has an EAP (Employee Assistance Program) or reach out to Beyond Blue Australia or Lifeline.


Reference List

[1] Gordon Parker et al, Burnout A Guide to Identifying Burnout and Pathways to Recovery (Allen & Unwin, 2019). [2] Victorian Legal Services Board + Commissioner, VLSB+C Lawyer Wellbeing Project (2019).

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